Arrivals

The going is still good, because arrivals are departures.

 Paul Theroux – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star


Back to a simpler, more languid existence in Goa. Time-pass, as they say here, instead of time-poor. Thunderous downpours in the steamy heat, cascades of water off giant tropical leaves, the violent green of the paddy fields. Everything is damp and redolent of mildew. The locals hang plastic sheeting on their balconies to keep out the rain and giant whorls of mould spiral up the sides of the buildings. Clothes never fully dry after washing. Puddles form in the footwell of the car – a small blue box with tiny wheels, which is rusting visibly by the day. It judders over red laterite puddles in the potholed lanes, swaying crazily. Everything here is antique, like being transported abruptly into an earlier age. All the technology is failing in this climate; my phone has developed a series of vertical lines across the screen which render it unusable. The solution is to leave it in a bag of rice for three days to dry out. The electricity goes off repeatedly. Jungle life in the monsoon. It takes time to adjust. Go slow.

It wasn’t even a month ago, in another world… a sleepless night in London, on a friend’s couch. Around midnight I awoke to the first sirens, and cursed the city’s perpetual din, its endless assault on the senses. Soon after came the chop of a helicopter’s rotors, interminably hovering, breaking away, returning. What were they looking for? I remembered this from when I used to live in London – endless police helicopters overhead. Grumpily I turned and pulled the pillow over my head, snatched fragments of sleep, tried to resist the temptation to look at my watch and the dwindling hours before I’d have to get up and make my way to the airport.

In the light of a summer dawn that poured slowly through the quiet streets I rose and pulled back the kitchen curtains to be confronted with a sickening sight – one that makes your heart immediately thump, an awful, iconic scene of our age. A column of smoke, hundreds of feet high, burnished by the rising sun, and around it like insects three helicopters buzzed, helpless at a distance. As we do now, I reached for my phone to see what had happened. Another attack? A tragedy, certainly. BBC: “Huge blaze engulfs West London tower block. Many trapped, 6 believed killed.” Now, weeks later, the authorities say we may never know how many. It was the latest in a long string of calamities that befell Britain that summer, as incomprehensible as if malignant stars had somehow aligned overhead. And each time thoughts turn to those we love, through blow after blow, until a sort of wan resignation sets in: I have watched these events from so many places; probably you are not there; you will be alright; I cannot comprehend the alternative.

The Hammersmith and City line was shut, countless roads closed. Citymapper directed me to Shepherd’s Bush Tube and the Central Line to Marble Arch. From there the coach would take me to Luton Airport. How well I know these streets, eerily empty at this hour. There is a cafe where I once sat – I forget who with or why. The coach nosed north, the wide West End streets becoming narrower, more chaotic and colourful. We passed through Kensington and then Kilburn. I took in the small shops, the new arrivals, the passers-by, people waiting at bus stops, as if I were still half-heartedly looking for someone. Once a staunchly Irish area, now it was far more multicultural – a microcosm of London itself, and how it had changed over my lifetime. This was the suburb that a young couple had come to in 1973, fleeing Ireland, the strictures of church and family, small-town scandal and moral judgement, as her pregnancy became increasingly visible. James and Mary. My birth parents.

The departure hall at Luton was packed with holidaymakers clad in shorts and T-shirts. The board was a list of familiar names – there was the Vueling flight to Roma that we had taken two years earlier. All of Europe was laid out: Sofia, Barcelona, Riga, Ibiza, Venezia. But it was easy to recognise the boarding gate for the Ryanair to Knock. These passengers weren’t dressed for a holiday; they were going home. Many carried jackets and thick sweaters, though it was 28 degrees. I recognised features familiar from my Welsh relatives – short of stature, with pale skin, light-coloured eyes, many with reddish hair and freckles – except their accents were rounder, more rapid. I found myself amongst the Irish.

Having spent much of my life as an ethnic minority, the odd one out in a crowd, even amongst my own melting-pot nationality of the mongrel British, for the first time I truly felt that I fitted in – in terms of outward appearance, at least – and then immediately wondered why I felt the need to. A sense of belonging? After a lifetime of travel that seemed an odd condition to suddenly require. I’d always been an exile, was indeed virtually brought up to be one, in schools that were essentially training for a life of colonial rule that no longer existed, ‘home’ being a far country that we visited periodically every few years – a place of odd associations, in childhood: of the smell of frying bacon, of the picture on the HP sauce bottle, of ‘the Office’ in King Charles Street, or the old biscuit tin that was decorated with a scene of Westminster Bridge circa. 1950 – empty of traffic but for a couple of postwar cars, a boy in a flat cap on a bike, a Routemaster bus, and a policeman in blue tunic and tall Bobby’s hat; this ‘home’ from where the chimes of Big Ben emanated as a prelude to the BBC World Service news and the jaunty notes of Lillibullero (an old Irish tune, ironically), a blur of short-wave static emphasising our very distance from it. It was perhaps our lot to live in exile. I had seen the city through so many incarnations of myself, so many people come and gone. London held so many memories, and yet consistently failed to live up to its own hype.

I was used to being lost; I enjoyed the sensation and had enough by way of inner resources to not feel threatened by it. But I knew that I was subject to a cyclical pattern of mood or behaviour which I was not always able to discern until the impact was observed on others; that old fear of madness again, where you lose the ground beneath your feet, are no longer quite sure who you are, and first become aware of it through the nervous glances of friends. Is he alright? 

And I knew too that I was, in a sense, playing with fire on this trip – that there was a whole Pandora’s Box of emotion, personal history and identity loosely hung together that might well fly apart. I had no idea where I was going – only that I must go. So, as always, I put on my traveller’s disguise, British passport issue. Just bumbling through… What, you want me to stand over here? Look that way? Fill in this form? Ok, sure. Tourism. A fortnight’s holiday. Yes. I am alright.

From 30,000 feet the patchwork fields of the English Midlands were laid out neatly in the sunshine; a fertile, abundant landscape, sculpted and coerced over the centuries into extraordinary productivity. On the horizon the sails of a wind farm turned lazily. In the seat next to me an Irish aunty demurely read some mildly scandalous airport novel with close attention.

After a while she closed the book, turned to me and asked: “Going home?”

I gave a wry smile. “Just a holiday for a couple of weeks, round Galway and Mayo.”

“Oh lovely. That’s the best part, I always think. I’m from Mayo myself, but live in Melbourne these days with my daughter.”

We talked about Australia for a while. “So many of the lads from our town have gone there now,” she said. “Ten years ago it was different, people were actually coming home to Ireland. But now they are leaving again, looking for work.”

“There’s a long history of it. A nation of exiles.”

“There is,” she sighed. “I’m glad I’m an old lady now. I wouldn’t want to be young these days, with all the debt and no jobs.”

“It’s the same in England,” I said. “Everyone running faster and faster just to keep their head above water. Busy busy, no security, no future. But if you’re lucky you can carve out a niche for yourself and find a life you’re happy in.”

“What is this Brexit thing all about?” she asked me. “Have they all gone mad over there?”

It was a question I was to be asked repeatedly in the coming days, and I had no answers, despite a few theories.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks this is a good idea. We’ll see what happens.”

“Isn’t that the truth of it.” She picked up her book once more.

I awoke to a very different scene outside the window. A lumpy green landscape dotted with slate-grey lakes came into view through wisps of ragged cloud. An enormous river meandered through it, and I saw small boats moored at a marina. There were tiny cottages alongside, all painted white. The fields were smaller than England, more haphazardly laid out, hummocky and rugged, demarcated with stone walls clearly visible from the air. We had begun our descent into Knock – an airport described as “boggy and foggy” – where, the pilot informed us, it was 14 degrees and raining.

It looked more like Iceland than Ireland. We walked across blustery tarmac to the tiny terminal. There was a stationary carousel for the luggage, but nobody seemed to have any. Immigration was a solitary guard in a booth who glanced at the sea of Irish faces passing him by and waved through all the proffered maroon EU passports. The arrivals hall was rural; a girl in muddy gumboots with a jumping labrador greeted her returning parents; fathers gave awkward hugs to hulking, bashful sons temporarily come home. Two backpackers with hiking poles and woolly hats marched up and down the concourse looking for an ATM. Three priests went by, young men in a Mediterranean swagger of black. Next to the currency exchange booth was an office marked “Pilgrimage Assistance”. Indeed, the airport’s entire reason for existing was due to the proximity of the shrine at Knock, known for its miracles. A local priest, Monsignor James Horan, had made it his lifetime’s work to have the airport constructed in order to ferry in pilgrims, and a statue of him just outside the exit showed a man with both arms raised aloft in victory towards a leaden sky that spat thin flecks of drizzle.

The weather thickened in the night, and the rain came down hard, drumming off the slate roof, spattering the windows, drilling vertical curtains of wet into the already sodden fields. I lay in an unfamiliar bed, listening to it fall, marshalling my thoughts, reassembling myself into consciousness. I was bound for Galway that day on the Bus Eireann from Derry, which would arrive at the village by 11.

I browsed the news on my phone as I had breakfast, the true scale of the tower block fire becoming apparent. Quite apart from the untold personal tragedies that occurred that night, I knew this would convulse an already reeling nation, becoming politicised. I was reminded of Ian Jack’s brilliant piece for Granta in 1989, Unsteady People, from when he was travelling in Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most corrupt states, as it still is today. A ferry accident at Manihari Ghat had left four hundred dead, and soon after he returned home to the UK the Hillsborough disaster happened – the aftermath and repercussions of which are still being felt some thirty years later with an endless apportioning of blame. At the time, the victims of Hillsborough – the Liverpool supporters especially – were attacked by the press for being hooligans… “drunks, beasts, uneducated, ignorant, violent”. As Jack says, the accusations would have been familiar to any citizen of Bihar, used to taking the blame for being who they are. “I am afraid we are not a steady people,” an old man had said to Jack on his visit – and indeed, as anyone who has lived in India for a while can testify, the unsteadiness can be deeply disconcerting: the total indifference to risk, the devil-may-care driving, the mercurial nature of the crowd and how quickly it can turn into a mob.

But then something shifted in the UK coverage, which highlighted just how far apart the two countries were in their approach to disaster. A ‘national tragedy’ was declared in Britain. Mourning began. Liverpudlian politicians demanded a royal visit to acknowledge the scale of the calamity. One commentator pronounced that the victims had “died for football”.

Nobody in Bihar would have suggested that the dead of Manihari Ghat had made such a noble sacrifice. Nobody would have said: ‘They died to expunge corruption, caste and poverty.’ Whatever their other faults, Biharis are not a self-deluding people.

Ian Jack – “Unsteady People”, Granta 28, 1st September 1989

I was mulling this over as I stood by the roadside in the drizzle, at the small Bus Eireann stop marked with its logo of a galloping red setter. Cars whizzed by, each a small, isolated bubble, windows up, headlights on, wipers going. There were no roadside shacks, no chai stalls, no buses pulling in with people hanging out the doorways. Life was passing by, but at a remove and a steady 100kmh. Eventually I made out the insect-antenna wing mirrors of a large coach and optimistically stuck out my thumb. 64 Gaillimh said the display. It pulled up, settled itself with a hydraulic sigh, and I boarded into a warm fug. Four Africans chatted animatedly at the front. At the rear there was a seat free next to a teenage girl who rather grudgingly moved her bag to accommodate me before plugging her headphones back in and staring glumly out the window. She checked her phone every 30 seconds for the entire journey.

Ahead of me were no less than three tweed caps, and my neighbour across the aisle was a muscular man with a crew cut, numerous tattoos and one arm in a cast. He had a harsh Northern Irish accent, and I tried not to make judgements about how he might have acquired such an injury; each week it seemed there was another kneecapping or punishment beating in the North, just as I remembered from the 80s. “They” hadn’t gone away, as various keyboard warriors on the internet were quick to point out. When I later told this story to a friend from Northern Ireland, about how I was a little ashamed of my judgmentalism but that we – in Britain at least – had been so conditioned by the coverage of the Troubles that it was hard to shake off the historical suspicion, she laughed and said: “I’d have thought exactly the same.”

We were passing through Knock, which looked rather like Assisi in a greyer latitude had it been done out in breeze-block. Dozens of small shops sold religious artefacts, and one had two life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary flanking its doorway. A church done in brutalist concrete was surmounted by a gigantic needle of a spire. A few days earlier there had apparently been a miracle: I had watched five-and-a-half minutes of shaky footage online which looked to me rather like clouds parting to reveal the setting sun, but which had been accompanied by various ecstatic cries from onlookers celebrating the Virgin making her presence known. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure if it reminded me more of a Velazquez, or… was that a bit of trunk?… perhaps of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of the Hindu pantheon. Cultural contexts.

 

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On the Beach

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Next, we read about the cobalt bomb, which was worse than the hydrogen bomb and could smother the planet in an endless chain reaction.

I knew the colour cobalt from my great-aunt’s paintbox. She had lived on Capri at the time of Maxim Gorky and painted Capriot boys naked. Later her art became almost entirely religious. She did lots of St Sebastians, always against a cobalt-blue background, always the same beautiful young man, stuck through and through with arrows and still on his feet.

So I pictured the cobalt bomb as a dense blue cloudbank, spitting tongues of flame at the edges. And I saw myself, out alone on a green headland, scanning the horizon for the advance of the cloud.

Bruce Chatwin – In Patagonia

At half-past five in the afternoon the temperature was still over 30 degrees, but slowly the heat began to go out of the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. Dogs chased each other, had stand-offs, ran through the surf barking with what could only be joy. People made their way down to the water’s edge, some taking up positions on an outcrop of rocks that jutted into the waves. They stood around in small groups, some couples quietly holding hands, eyes turned seawards. Two Goan girls picked through a rockpool, foraging for crustaceans. A bearded man of indeterminate nationality did a headstand on a yoga mat. A Russian nearby turned his back to the sea and held his phone out in front of him; on the screen I made out a woman’s face, blue-lit from her computer. She was wearing a heavy jumper, watching this Indian Ocean sunset from a wintry Moscow. Children played, turning cartwheels along the damp sand. Next to me a man watched the advancing ripples of water with an expression of solemn appreciation, as if in a gallery. And I suddenly felt connected to every single person there somehow, as fellow members of a species – all of us part of humanity, drawn together by this elemental force of the sunset at the ending of the day.


In the green room at home in England, on the shelf at the foot of the narrow bed, lies a book. On the cover a Naval officer is pictured standing looking out to sea, the white top of his cap contrasting with a bilious green sky. Behind him, further along the beach, stands a woman in a red dress. She is barefoot, her arms folded about herself. Is she looking at the officer, or past him, out to sea? It is not clear. To the left, below the arc of the horizon looms the ominous black outline of a submarine, hull half-visible in the molten white waves. Above it is a curious shape in the sky, a thin pale stalk swelling outward at its top. A mushroom cloud.

On The Beach was written in 1957 by Nevil Shute not long after he’d emigrated to Australia from England. The book details the lives of a small group of people in Melbourne who are awaiting the inevitable arrival of a cloud of deadly radioactive fallout. A nuclear war the previous year in the Northern Hemisphere has contaminated life on earth, leaving only parts of the far south habitable – southern Australia, New Zealand, Patagonia. But global air currents mean that soon these locations too will succumb to radiation poisoning.

Life in Melbourne continues with a veneer of normality, despite a few changes due to circumstances. There is no fuel, for example, so people travel once again by horse and cart. Others plant gardens knowing full well that they will not live long enough to see them bloom. A group of old buffers decide that they might as well drink their way through the club’s wine cellar, since there’s no point in keeping it, and there are campaigns to have the fishing season brought forward by a few months. The Australian government issues suicide pills. Everyone adapts to the new reality in their own way.

The book opens with a description of Peter Holmes waking on a golden, sunlit morning next to his wife Mary, trying to recall the mysterious sense of happiness that he feels. Is it because it is Christmas? No – that was last week. Slowly as he becomes conscious he recalls that he has to go into Melbourne that day, to a meeting at the Navy Department. He’s hoping for a new command – his own ship. At the foot of the bed their baby daughter Jennifer awakens in her cot with a series of small whimpering sounds.

Commander Dwight Towers is the captain of one of the last American nuclear submarines, temporarily assigned to the Royal Australian Navy. He becomes attached to a young Australian woman, Moira Davidson, wry, funny and cynical by turn, thinly hiding a terrible vulnerability, who is herself coping with circumstances by drinking heavily. Towers is already married; his wife and children were living in the United States when war broke out, and they are almost certainly dead. Despite knowing this, he buys birthday presents for his children and maintains a fiction that they may be alive. Once, in an unguarded moment, he admits to Moira that he knows they are dead, and asks if she thinks he is crazy to pretend they are still alive. She replies that she does not – she understands. He kisses her in gratitude.

Shute’s characters are, as always, decent and upright individuals who are not given to great displays of emotion even when inwardly reeling. They possess a stoicism that was a characteristic of the time amongst the generation that had come through the Second World War – a quiet fortitude to their suffering, which when it occasionally slips, is all the more shocking. Moira cycles through different emotions – tearfulness, determination, and inevitably the anger and bitterness of someone who feels cheated of her future. When Peter Holmes tentatively tries to broach the subject of suicide pills to his wife, she goes into complete denial, refusing to entertain the notion. He becomes exasperated, and shouts at her about the awful sickness that they will all succumb to. Her tears and childlike naivety in response prompt an enormous welling up of compassion within him. He knows he cannot ask her to administer the pills to their baby, but is determined that they will die together as a family.

Towers embarks on a mission to check for survivors in the northern hemisphere, sailing the submarine across the Pacific, as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. Returning down the coast of the United States, they halt briefly off San Francisco. Through the periscope they look out upon a deserted city. The Golden Gate Bridge has fallen. One crewmember jumps ship to spend his remaining days in his home town. Finding no trace of life the submarine returns to Australia. Towers goes on a trip with Moira, both aware of the feelings developing between them, and yet he cannot become involved with her without feeling disloyal to his wife. Nevertheless their platonic love for each other deepens, thrown into relief by the precariousness of the situation, of the fleeting sweetness of life. It is all the more moving for being necessarily chaste.

As the situation worsens and more people begin to show the first signs of radiation sickness, Towers decides that rather than commit suicide together with Moira, he will instead follow his duty to the end, take the submarine out into international waters and scuttle it, going down with his ship. In doing so he will, in his mind, be reunited with his wife and children. Moira drives up to a hilltop to watch the submarine heading out to sea for the last time. It is a testament to the humanity of the book, that even in this appalling, apocalyptic scenario, that some things still endure at the end of the world. As Moira looks out to sea, torn with emotion, she achieves a kind of peace: admiring and understanding Towers’ decision, filled with love. She imagines herself together with him as she opens the box containing the pill.

Sometimes I think of that young woman, standing on an Australian headland looking out to sea, waiting for the arrival of a cobalt-blue cloud, and it breaks my heart.


Elections in Goa. Small trucks – camionettes – drive around the neighbourhood blaring out music and speeches. Aam Admi have the best tunes, and the crew wear the white forage caps favoured by Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s leader and Chief Minister of Delhi. The BJP – Prime Minister Modi’s party – are the loudest, the volume so high that it distorts into static. It’s all quite friendly, with none of the sinister overtones that you sometimes get during elections in tropical countries, but there’s an underlying seriousness to it all. For the last two weeks, bars and restaurants have been rigorously enforcing last orders for alcohol at 10pm – these places which are so laid back for the rest of the year. The owners are all nervous, fearing a visit from the police, who normally turn a blind eye to such things. Now the shops and supermarkets have stopped selling alcohol too – there’s a ban from the 2nd to the 5th of February, although polling day is technically only on the 4th. Although it is illegal to smoke in restaurants, everyone still does, even beneath the hand-made No Smoking signs – but now all the ashtrays have been taken away. In one place the waiter mistakes our hand-rolled cigarette for a joint and tells us to be discrete as there’s a cop at the bar. It’s a temporary tightening up, an establishing of a pretence of rules more in line with the rest of the world. Democracy is a serious business, is the message.

Exactly what the rationale is for enforcing an earlier closing time for a fortnight before an election is unclear. It doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. One explanation is that voters are sometimes bribed to attend rallies with alcohol (undoubtedly true), and licensed premises have a readily available supply. But of course there would be countless ways around that, with alcohol smuggled across state borders, and the explanation is more akin to the recent, economically disastrous policy of demonetization, where the most common notes in circulation were withdrawn overnight. It served no practical purpose other than causing massive inconvenience – 90% of the money found its way back into the economy within a couple of months, making a nonsense of the claim that such a policy would wipe out black money. Psychologically, however, it was a shrewd move: it gave people a sense that they were all in it together, that the agreed menace of corruption needed addressing somehow, and this gave everyone the opportunity to do their bit, to feel that they were suffering for a greater good. It makes a population compliant.

One of the ironies of this, of course, is that the political parties regard their voters with such contempt that they can be bought by the promise of a few drinks. And yet it strikes me that this situation is not dissimilar to the one I am currently in. K’s bike developed a puncture the other night. We parked it at a small pizza place, and the next day I went to a puncture shop, who collected it and fixed the puncture. The problem I have is that the bike is at the puncture shop. K is in Pune. Given that I cannot ride two bikes at once, I shall have to ask a friend for a favour, to ride the thing back home – a favour that really only merits the offer of beer. To offer money would be insulting. To offer nothing at all would be crass. Beer is the perfect solution.

So I have visited a small shop where the owner discretely went out the back with my rucksack and illicitly filled it with Tuborg, for a suitable fee. In India there is always a way.


I have written before of my fellow foreigners here, how they are brought together in a temporary truce that transcends nationality. I’m thinking of the group of Germans who sat at the next table to me the other night – perhaps six or seven of them, most in their 50s or 60s. They were from Munich, and I eavesdropped as best I could, occasionally losing the frequency of their Bavarian accents, then tuning in again. Two ferries out on the estuary had a near miss, pirouetting silently upon the seashell-pink water, which prompted them to comment upon Indian driving generally. The ferries were “schwein teuer”, apparently – swinishly expensive. The Goan electorate might as well vote for “Koko nuss” – coconuts – or perhaps, as one sour-looking man opined, a banana. I thought, as I often do in these circumstances, of recent history, and how they had, within their lifetimes, been born into a wasteland of rubble, a nadir of barbarity, which had gone on to become the economic powerhouse of Europe, with a society almost at the zenith of what we call civilization. The paradox was heightened by the group behind me, who spoke Czech. Across the courtyard were a large Russian family. And I thought: right – so this lot here invaded that lot behind me, occupying the Sudetenland, which was part of Czechoslovakia. Then they invaded that lot over there, who repelled them, occupied half their country, then went on to later invade this lot behind me to crush the uprising in the Prague Spring. And how did all this come about? What delineates this group from that group? Language? They are not so dissimilar, and besides, it’s easy to learn another’s language – often to find that other people utter the same banalities to each other that we all do. Culture? These three groups here have a great deal more in common with each other culturally than they do with any of the Indians in whose village they are currently sitting. What an utter nonsense it all is.

Because it strikes me sometimes that to travel is to embrace strangeness, and there are times when India is deeply, inexplicably strange. Waiting for a bus in Mapusa the other day, sitting on a low wall on a steaming night with an endless stream of two-wheeled traffic snaking past, I looked around myself at all the Indians who calmly accepted me in their midst. There was a man wheeling a bicycle which had a 50kg sack of wood on the back. A group of small children came to beg, proffering little steel bowls – one spotted a couple embracing, saying goodbye to each other, and managed to insert the bowl between them before being rebuffed. Women in saris sat waiting for their bus with large bundles before them. Further along the wall upon which we sat, there was an invisible border; here, people lay stretched out asleep, curled on their sides – the inevitable accumulation of pavement dwellers of any Indian town. And I sat there among them, with 2500 rupees in my wallet – about twenty quid these days – which is several months’ salary for some of these people, and nobody did anything, hassled me, visibly resented me for it, anything. There was just a quiet acceptance that although they lived in their world and I in mine, we were sitting next to each other on the same wall, and we in fact had more in common, in our daily needs or desires, than differences between us.

There are times, though, when you know that you will never understand this country – it’s extraordinary beliefs, the pantheon of its gods, the vastness of it all. You can’t even read the simplest signs. Who are those two men in the small van waiting at the gate? Two pot-bellied uncles in white shirts who are holding mobile phones. They have been there an hour, waiting for something, watching the passing traffic. Are they police? They don’t have the worn leather jackets, moustaches, tired eyes and cigarettes of any Arab mukhabarat. They lack the safari suits, flares and Afro hair styles favoured by Zimbabwe’s CIO, who seemed to model themselves on the 70s film star Shaft. These are just two rather portly Indian men whose presence, like so much here, is inexplicable.

Riding back from Mapusa round the hairpin bends over the hill in the dark, I came down into the valley where we live. The air was cool on the hill but thickened into sultriness across the marshes. The Enfield thunked along in fourth gear like an outboard motor, the buckled concrete of the road causing the bike to pitch and yaw as if I were in a small boat at sea. The temple was glittering with lights – thousands of them in spiralling patterns, and I heard the yodelling squeeze-box notes of music, and a man singing. These songs often go on for hours, everyone packed in together in the sweltering darkness. Sounds of a small handbell being rung, then a series of explosions from firecrackers – chasing away the bad spirits. A kind of sermon began, the Konkani language utterly different to the nasal “aap” and “hai” sounds of Hindi; this was a more rounded and mellifluous tongue that might as well have been Yoruba. The man was becoming more voluble, and then the congregation began a strange kind of groaning and crying. I pulled over, switched off the bike and listened to the utter, barbaric strangeness of the sound – this mass of people wailing on a hot night, the distant hollow thunk of a man chopping coconuts with a machete, the howling dogs, the endless chirp of crickets. Goosebumps rose on my bare forearms even as sweat trickled down my chest, and I thought: you will never understand this place – the hopes and terrors of these tropical people, the things that they fear in the darkness, the lamentation of the gods. This is the world we inhabit.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

A Schooner to Hobart

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In the covered shelter overlooking the temple hot pools the women are singing, perhaps 30 or 40 of them; a robust, brassy chant that rises and falls to the accompaniment of their clapping. Round and round the chorus goes, as wild as the mountains that surround us, bold, glittering and defiant. I can only make out their shadowy figures from afar, but can picture them from the sound: a grandmother bawls out the lead in a voice cracked with age, a call and answer to the high, clear notes of a young girl, perhaps in her teens. Then the rest join in a shrill, powerful chorus. It has a barbaric splendour to it, full of strength, and slowly the village becomes quiet around us in awe as the women make their voices heard. Then the singing dies away, and the low roar of the distant river rises again as it rushes on into the darkness.


Naggar had been picturesque, but after a week it was time to move on. With no clear destination in mind many possibilities presented themselves: Kinnaur was out, but perhaps we could go to Dharamsala, and a small village above the town where we had stayed three years previously. But it was going to be a long slog to get there, and at peak holiday season accommodation might be in short supply. We toyed with the idea of a return to Ladakh, but the region’s remoteness, previously an attraction, now became a liability; we both needed somewhere to rest up and recover, not go into one of the wildest parts of the Himalaya which took two days’ ride to reach.

Then I remembered Vashisht. It was a village just three kilometers across the valley from Manali, but a world away from the snarling traffic and reggae-blaring coffee shops that Old Manali had become. Vashisht was known for its hot springs which lay in the very centre of the village as part of  an ancient temple complex, and when I had visited previously, nerves frayed from Afghanistan, it had been a tranquil spot to linger in for a while, still retaining something of its village atmosphere.

Trudging up the hill past the castle, laden with backpacks, we emerged into what passed for a town square in Naggar. There were several taxis parked up but no drivers in sight. A lone autorickshaw was parked by the chai stall, and we found the driver – a young, sleepy-eyed guy in a red polo shirt. Could he take us all the way to Vashisht? Certainly, he said. No problem. We agreed a price, clambered in and set off on a roller coaster ride down the lanes. A short way beyond the village he turned off onto a dirt track that zigzagged its way down the mountainside, past small stone houses and bushes of wild cannabis. “Short cut,” the driver explained. We clung on, pitching and yawing our way over the bumps. We crossed a narrow bridge bedecked with prayer flags that was just wide enough to accommodate the rickshaw, and turned onto the main highway to Manali.

As we buzzed along, I started to notice that the driver appeared to be swaying. He’d glance down at the handlebars with his hooded eyes, give a strange half-smile, and begin a slow clockwise rotation of his upper body. It looked like he was going into a trance.

I tapped him on the shoulder. “Thik hain, bhai?” You OK, brother?

“Haan, haan, thik hain.” He straightened up once more. He was driving well – his reflexes seemed good: he braked swiftly to miss a motorbike that pulled out in front of us, avoided the potholes and anticipated all the countless hazards. But again, after a few minutes, he began that odd swaying rotation. Was he drugged? Falling asleep? I couldn’t tell. We were coming into Manali now, past the private bus stand by the river where we had arrived three weeks earlier. I did a quick risk assessment, debating whether to get him to stop and find another rickshaw. But relative safety – he’d got us this far. Nevertheless I kept a close eye on him.

The traffic was worse than ever. Nose to tail gridlock for several kilometers. Masked Himachali cops waved arms and blew whistles seemingly at random, trying to control it. As we neared a line of parked rickshaws, a paunchy guy in blue shirt and aviator shades stepped in front of us, blocking our progress. He began barking at the driver in the manner of officialdom everywhere. He wanted us to turn back, it seemed. We had the wrong plates. The driver explained he’d come from Naggar. It was the rickshaw cartel, where they had unofficially assigned themselves certain routes. Our driver was an outsider, and not welcome. There was some shouting back and forth in Hindi, and then we drove on once more.

“Yahan se right.” The directions came back to me after a three year absence, through the mental maps of other cities. Straight on led to the Rohtang Pass, culminating in a wall of mountains, the other side of which lay Ladakh. And much seemed familiar, but so many other places intervened: these trees are not the gum trees of Victoria; not the pines of Scandinavia, nor the poplars of Italy. How many places have I been? Sometimes you feel you have seen too much, travelled too far. The memories blur together, superimposed over one another. A place will pop into your head at random, temporarily transporting you in time and space. In the end destinations become immaterial, and the only consistent theme is your endless journey. But over there was a hotel where I had once stayed, and there a barber’s where I had a haircut. I had been here before. What had changed in three years? Myself, immeasurably.

Dharma Hotel was a succession of long, echoing corridors which carried the unmistakeable reek of cooking gas. A six storey monstrosity, it had a perfect bird’s eye view over the village from the hillside, reached by a flight of steep stone steps from behind the temple pools. These lanes were mediaeval – spattered with cow dung and with open drains running alongside. Rounding one corner we had a near miss as a lady in a nearby house flung the contents of a bucket out of her open doorway. Gardez l’eau. I remembered this slow trudge up, heart hammering. We had come from sea level in Goa, and were now at 6,500 feet. Ahead of us three local labourers toiled upwards, each with a stack of bricks on their back supported by a band around the forehead: I counted 24 bricks in the load of the man ahead of me. They would do this journey over and over again each day, 40, 50 times. They moved in slow motion, faces impassive, eyes on the step ahead, lost in their own private worlds. And how many people had I followed up mountain paths over the years? Robustly jovial Manyikas in Zimbabwe, endlessly laughing and singing; the fearsomely proud Tajiks of Panjshir who brought a casual, dashing flair to everything they did; rugged Gurungs in Nepal whose men supplied the Brigade of Gurkhas, legendary for their toughness, who knew no flat land from the day they were born – all mountain people whose steps danced effortlessly up the track ahead.

We adjourned to the terrace for lunch, and found we were back in backpacker territory; the menu was a combination of Western and Indian dishes – pizza, falafel, aloo gobi. In the distance the white wall of the Rohtang Pass barred the valley, and above it the sky was darkening. A wind sprang up, and the first spots of rain began to fall. Seizing our plates we moved into the dining room, which was notable for the absence of any tables. A group of six or seven men were sitting in a circle in the centre of the room, gathered around an enormous hookah. It was one of the largest I’d seen, with a stem that was over a metre long. Each would puff on it for a while then give it a little flick, and it would spin round the group before coming to rest in front of someone else. On one wall an enormous television played an Indian soap opera, involving liquescent-eyed beauties demurely quailing in front of scowling mothers-in-law – a staple of the genre. Occasionally a banner would pop up on screen titled “Breaking News – Ranbir spotted in Colaba nightspot with Deepika”, or “Karina dazzles at blockbuster launch”, on what was ostensibly a news channel.

You can tell a lot about a country by its media. Bollywood has never translated particularly well to other cultures – it’s too Indian somehow, too rigidly formulaic – but that’s precisely what offers an insight into local aspirations. A film of any genre would be unthinkable without at least one song and dance routine, although if it is the type of Action blockbuster popularised by Hollywood the routine might be not-so-cunningly hidden; in a nightclub scene, for example, which the hero and heroine just happen to visit before becoming the stars of the show, everyone else somehow magically lining up around them. There’s also a dearth of originality; it’s quite common to find yourself watching a sequence which somehow seems oddly familiar, due to it having been lifted almost scene by scene from Hollywood. But nobody cares – nobody cries foul, or sues anyone else. The local audience doesn’t mind; indeed they somehow relate far more to the sight of Shah Rukh Khan chasing a baddie over the same red-tiled rooftops of Dubrovnik than they would Daniel Craig. Never mind the silliness, the parodies and the intertextuality. He’s our boy.

But the night bus movie to Manali unwittingly showed everything that was wrong with the country. Racist, sexist, disablist, homophobic, it would have prompted howls of outrage in any Western audience – in fact it did so even on the bus; two of our fellow passengers, both British, winced their way through it – while all around us Indians laughed. It was called Housefull 3 (how they had made two previous ones along similar lines defied belief) and revolved around a patriarchal Indian father not wanting his three daughters to marry. He was a millionaire, the setting somewhere in England (success comes only with getting out), and it managed, typically, to make the women look like silly bimbos who sneaked out to spend their time jumping up and down in slow motion to a series of Bollywood hits on party boats up and down the Thames, pausing in their tepid twerking only to pout for selfie shots. Their hapless suitors feigned disabilities to gain admittance to the family home (one blind, one crippled and one mute), and were mocked for their afflictions. The grand country house that was the family home was run by a domestic staff who were all black. In one unforgettable scene an Indian actor woke in horror to realise that the woman beside him in bed was also black – a fact he had been unaware of because it was dark (the audience howled with laughter at that one). And in almost every shot, somewhere, looming with semiotic aspiration, was a Union Jack flag – either hanging from a flagpole, or as the logo on somebody’s sweatshirt, or on the masks of three jewel thieves. It was a slavish display of repugnantly Anglophone loyalty, a perpetual Stockholm Syndrome of the mentally colonised. Kick us enough and we’ll lick your boots in gratitude. We only want to be like you. Trouble is, we just don’t know how.


Sometimes you cannot see what is right in front of you. Your mind is elsewhere entirely. The eyes unconsciously take in a scene, but it means nothing, has no relevance to what is going on in your inner world. Then suddenly you register what is before you, and the present comes rushing back, like surfacing for air. I am miles away, reliving events, rewriting new ones, and then I find myself noticing a flock of white egrets flying up the river. I’ve been watching them for perhaps a minute without realising, taking in their curious head-up posture while flying, their neatly trailing legs, the shape that their wings cut through the air, a sideways figure-of-eight, tracing infinity. They rise, climbing, and split into twin skeins, perfectly framing the rising moon behind the mountains which turns them silver, then they are heading in different directions, one group gliding across to the western bank and settling there on a small beach, the other flying on over the village, making for the pass. I’m grateful for their presence now, like a sign, and wonder at how I could unthinkingly observe something so beautiful and be so preoccupied as to not notice.

I was woken soon after six in the morning by loud voices outside. Many voices. Emerging onto the balcony I saw an Indian family on the next balcony. Beyond them were another couple on their balcony, and on down the line – six balconies in a row, each with people standing on them, all of them having a shouted conversation with each other. A man on the next balcony saw me and called out: “Good morning sar!”

“Morning,” I croaked at him.

“Where are you coming from?”

Goa. Delhi. London. Suffolk. I don’t know. 

“England,” I replied. “And you?”

He gestured to all the adjacent balconies. “We are from Jalandhar. In Punjab!”

Jullundur. “I know it. Lawrence Durrell was born there. The writer.”

He smiled uncomprehendingly, so I nodded in their general direction and went back inside. K sleepily stirred. “What is all that bloody noise?”

“Punjabis.”

“Oh god.” She pulled the pillow over her head and went back to sleep.

By nine the Punjabis had gone, perhaps on a jeep ride up to the snowfields to have their photographs taken – one of the more popular excursions for the plains dwellers in mid-summer. On a flat roof below us a blonde girl was doing exercises, standing up, touching her toes, then forming a bridge with her bottom in the air before repeating the process. I watched her perform the same routine for half an hour – in which time I drank two masala chais and smoked three cigarettes. Then I saw another western girl appear on a balcony below her, dressed head to toe in skintight black lycra, headphones in, some kind of health monitoring device strapped to her upper arm. She looked as if she was about to go jogging round Hyde Park. She unfurled a skipping rope and began bouncing up and down, her ponytail jigging prettily behind her. “And now I must do my skipping!” I thought unkindly.

I was distracted from observing her aerobics by the sight of an Indian couple slowly climbing a spiral staircase to the rooftop. Both were decidedly large, and must have been in late middle age. They hauled themselves upwards using the handrail, then tottered across to a swing seat onto which they collapsed, fanning themselves. There they stayed for a few minutes, until the man rose and began a curious, knee-lifting walk around the rooftop perimeter. He wore baggy white shorts and a yellow T-shirt. He turned and beckoned to his partner, who slowly got up from the swing seat and went over to join him. She began to imitate his strange gait, lifting the knees high, then they both turned on the spot and went backwards a few steps, turned forwards again, and clapped their hands over their head. One, two, three, four steps forward, turn, turn, clap. One, two, three, four, turn, turn, clap. I realised they were dancing. Perhaps they had music on a mobile phone that I was too far away from to hear. They went in a circle around the rooftop, then reversed their steps and went backward. I watched, mesmerised.

“Come and look at this!” I called inside.

K emerged. “That aunty and uncle? What are they doing?”

“I think they’re dancing. Isn’t it awesome?”

Together we sat and watched these big people, aunty and uncle ji, high-stepping and clapping their way round and round the rooftop, and as they turned I realised both of them wore huge smiles.


The rain comes at four o’clock every day. The sky darkens, the Rohtang Pass slowly vanishes and the mountains echo to thunder. The wind sweeps up the valley, prompting a flurry of activity in the village below – washing is taken in, the hay which is laid out to dry on the flat roof opposite is bundled up hurriedly, and tables and chairs are cleared from the terraces. Soon the rain begins to fall, and the cloud descends down the hillside opposite, dripping stands of conifers looming, silhouetted against the mountain’s flanks. Twin headlights nose cautiously along the other side of the valley as vehicles tentatively find their way back down from the high passes, and eventually the road snarls into gridlock, a long line of vehicles inching forwards with a muffled honking. The sky boils black and grey with torn cloud, tendrils of shredded mist, and a lowering fog draws a diaphanous curtain over the scene.

By evening the rain has stopped and people emerge into the streets again, waiters shaking off chairs, stallholders setting up once more. The river has doubled in size across the boulders of its bed and is roaring in full spate, silt-grey and green woven through with twisting braids of white water. Sometimes you see fishermen selling their catch, smoked on roadside braziers, a small bundle of trout held aloft, with scales of burnished gold, sightless eyes opaque now, fins akimbo. There is a damp chill in the air, reminiscent of home somehow, which induces a certain wistfulness – I haven’t felt this cold for months. You look out at the rain-slick streets of London through the droplets trickling down the bus window on a blustery evening, monochrome passers-by clad in black and grey, huddled in coats, clutching umbrellas, hurrying home. And perhaps you think to yourself: What am I doing here? 

I was leaving India in two weeks. The end of another half-year, my biannual peregrination to the subcontinent like that of a migratory bird. This time I had covered a lot of ground, from arid Gujarat in the far west to the deep tropical south of Kerala, and now the north, here in Himachal – “abode of snows”. That was why, I knew, my mind was turning to other destinations once more. Thoughts of home mingled with other places, other possibilities.

Travel becomes its own imperative – a legacy of latent nomadism. It winds up some internal spring within you tighter and tighter, some escapist urge to see new places, other people. It might take a month, or a year, but sooner or later it manifests itself. You pace out the corners of your apartment, stare out of the window for the hundredth time, and everything familiar is sickening. Your life is on hold. Your mind turns to other places you’ve been, other trips. You remember the colourful awnings of a market flapping in the breeze on a sparkling day, like prayer flags. Where was it?… There was a big red ship in the harbour, an icebreaker. Hobart.

We went to Salamanca Market and bought some local honey – blackwood, I think it was. Acacia melanoxylon. It came from way down on the south-eastern coast of Tasmania, where the road ended and there was just miles of bushland, the Franklin-Gordon National Park. The bees flew through the forests all day and returned to their hives at night. The honey tasted strong, not floral so much as a rich, vegetable scent, rather like artichoke. And it was just like the Heaphy honey from the top of New Zealand’s South Island, at the start of the Heaphy Track. I walked that track, and had the honey for breakfast each day, with Weet-bix (no ‘a’) and dried apricots and water from the river, mashed into a paste. Perhaps there’s a connection – similar flora, rain-lashed island wildernesses on the same latitude, just across the Tasman amid the Roaring Forties of the vast Southern Ocean.

I had met Mick in a hostel the previous day. A great black-bearded gentle giant of a guy, he offered to show me round Hobart, his home town. He was in his late 60s, and his marriage had just ended, so he had pitched up at a backpacker hostel as he had nowhere else to stay. His memory was going, and lines of concern at what looked like a bleak future were etched across his brow like lightning. Now he was forgetting the words for everyday items, and I had none to offer him in consolation.

After the market we went to watch the footie in a pub – the AFL final. Hawthorne Hawks against Sydney Swans. I snatched off my bush hat when Jane Fonda sang “Advance Australia Fair”, prompted by Mick rising rather unsteadily to his feet and removing his own. He nodded approvingly.

The barman came over. “What can I get you, gents?”

“I’ll have a…” Mick frowned, trying to remember. The barman was a young guy with a frosted mat of spikes for hair and tattooed arms. The silence went on.

“Sorry mate. Gimme a minute. I’ll have a…”

He started to go red. His forehead puckered with a knot as he tried to remember. The barman looked at me, and I silently willed him to wait, to be patient. He did.

“Bugger it, a beer, dammit. In a…”

We waited a bit more. A bottle? A pint? The barman started fiddling with glasses, eyes drifting to the screen overhead.

“A schooner! A beer in a schooner!” It was a half-pint glass. Mick’s face cleared with relief. He’d remembered.

 

 

Shared Journeys

The Eternal Traveller

I was walking up a hill in Assisi, dragging my case behind me. The rhythm of its wheels on the cobblestones seemed familiar. Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah. The wheels jolted over the ruts and set up this continual refrain which I couldn’t quite place. Then it came to me slowly: I had the couplet in my head for years, but couldn’t remember the words – only the sound and rhythm of it, and the rough English translation of what it meant. It was a description of the sacking of an ancient city by the Mongols. Where had I heard it? I thought it Persian, and very old. I walked up the hill, mentally chanting nonsense words: “The hatstand the milkman the brassband the land!” I couldn’t get it. Into the mental archives it went. Later, after we had found our accommodation, a small cavern owned by a poet, built into the hillside and beautifully furnished, I took out my notebook – a battered black moleskine – and wrote down: hatstand, milkman, brass band, land. Persian? Balkh? Bokhara? 

Hoping the language hadn’t changed much since antiquity, I messaged a Persian-speaking friend. “How would you translate something like: ‘They came and they destroyed and they burned and they looted and then they vanished?’”

He came back with a line of text in which some of the words were familiar – amdand, kushtand, sokhtand – but the rhythm was missing. Round and round in my head it went. Virgil wrote a Latin equivalent in hexameter: “Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum” – “The qua-druped’s gall-oping hoof shakes the ground”. Da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Da! But what was it in Persian?


The Notebooks:

In France these notebooks are known as carnet moleskines: ‘moleskine’, in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.

In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written – about the wounds of a Baroque Christ – were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners.

Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters.

“I’d like to order a hundred,” I said to Madame. “A hundred will last me a lifetime.”

She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon.

At lunchtime I had a sobering experience. The headwaiter of Brasserie Lipp no longer recognised me, “Non Monsieur, il n’y a pas de place.” At five, I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and said, almost with an air of mourning, “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus.”

Bruce Chatwin. 


My notebook copy

My own moleskine lay open on the table before me, broken-backed, its flyleaves speckled with a kind of international grit. Unlike Chatwin, in twenty years of travel I’d never lost one yet – although I often kept several in circulation at once, rotating them. The opening lines of this one began: “New Delhi, Christmas Day 2010. Pigeons are landing on the maidan playing field in small, ochrey puffs of red dust. They are thin-looking creatures, as are the Indian crows. Call of mynah birds overhead. Faint tang of drains, incense, sandalwood soap, Wills Gold Flake cigarettes. It feels like a long time since it last rained.”

In the small pocket at the back were: a ticket to the Proms at the Albert Hall in London; a sun-faded postcard from Kyneton, Victoria, showing the bank, the old mill and the hotel known as ‘The Swinging Arms’; a pass for the Annapurna Conservation Area; an entry ticket to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, Nepal; ten Indian rupees, and a twenty Afghani banknote. I began to write some first impressions of Assisi:

Hollow metallic tontin of tongue-lolling churchbells. Crucifixes for sale and T-shaped Tau signs. Small religious figurines of St. Francis and enormous, head-sized meringues in the cafes. After the hordes of Gore-tex clad tourists vanish at dusk, the alleys become the preserve of huge cats in residence beneath battered Fiats – the only cars small enough to negotiate the narrow bends. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi stands overlooking the plain below. A sense of something spiritual – a special place.

We walked along the dark and winding streets in search of dinner. Down towards the Piazza Communale we found a small restaurant which was almost deserted, but seemed nice. It was run by two brothers, and had only recently opened. They specialised in local cuisine; very local – they could tell you the provenance of just about everything on the menu. For antipasti we selected a cheese platter, which came on a long, olivewood board. There were four kinds of pecorino, all at different stages of maturity.

“I suggest,” said the owner, “you begin at this end, with the mildest, and try it with some honey. Then progress towards the more mature ones, which you should try with either the fig jam or the chilli preserve.” He was right – it was a delicious combination. Then, another Umbrian speciality: Papardelle con Ragu Cinghiale – wide pasta like tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce. The sun was dipping behind the distant hills in shades of vermillion and purple, silhouetting the poplar trees. Lights began springing up across the darkening plain, and in the distance a lone church bell began tolling, melancholic and solitary in the evening chill.


It was a wild November night on the Suffolk Coast – a gale in the autumn of 1989. Rain spattered the windows and the TV aerial on the tiled roof of the Red Lion pub across the road was swaying back and forth in the wind. The pub sign squeaked on its hinges. On the wall by the yard was a sign that said: “Private Property – No Access. Rights of Way Act 1942”. The sign looked like it had been there since the war. And in the distance, out in the blackness, the sea boiled and roared, the crests of the waves whisked into sprays of silver in the light of the moon. It was easy to imagine a U-boat in 1942 waiting for clearer weather just offshore, lying calmly just beneath the surface, and the captain peering through the periscope at the shimmering lights of the town as the waves washed over the lens intermittently in their remorseless progression towards the land.

In the tall, thin house that smelt of wood polish and echoed to the slow tick of the grandfather clock in the hall, we sat in a small pool of golden light on the second floor, my grandfather in his armchair doing The Times crossword, my father sitting on the sofa nearby, reading another section of the paper, and myself, aged 16, listening to the storm outside and half-watching the TV that was on in the corner. It was an arts review programme, I remember, and the presenter was talking about a new book – a novel about Meissen porcelain – “Utz”, by Bruce Chatwin. It was the last interview he ever gave, explained the presenter, before his death from AIDS at the age of 48.

On the screen a gaunt figure, skeletally thin, sat with staring, bright blue eyes. He never blinked. His hair had almost gone. In an eerie, high-pitched voice, plummy as an old lady, he spoke about Meissen, and a man he had come across in Czechoslovakia who couldn’t bring himself to flee the Communist regime because it would mean abandoning the art collection which he loved – a man who was also in love with his maid, who looked after the small porcelain figurines. “And the maid wins!” he cackled. His nose was running, and he sniffed repeatedly. It was pitiful to see, and utterly haunting.

I’ve almost finished my big book – there’s a terrible old character with a twisted gut called Hanlon – and now I have a whole novel growing in the notebooks too. I can see almost all of it. It’s set in Prague and I shall call it “Utz” – “Utz!” Anyway, one day you must tell people Redders, but not now. It’s a fable. It’s all there, ready-made. And the moral is simple: never kill yourself. Not under any circumstances. Not even when you’re told you have AIDS.

Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey

Chatwin had considered taking a trip to Switzerland, to the top of the Jungfraujoch, and jumping off. Or of going back to Mauritania, to the nomads there, and just taking off all his clothes and walking off into the desert. But he couldn’t do it. As Hermann Hesse says in Steppenwolf: “Suicide cases… are those individuals who no longer see self-development and fulfilment as their life’s aim, but rather the dissolution of self, a return to the womb, to God, to the cosmos… They see death as their saviour, not life, and they are prepared to jettison, abandon and extinguish themselves in order to return to their origins.” Chatwin, though, knew deep down that he wasn’t prepared to give up like that. That self-development and fulfilment was something to follow to the end, to be “defeated and laid low by life itself, rather than by one’s own hand”.

Dad looked up from his paper and frowned. “Poor chap. He really does look ill.” Grandpa’s paper came down and he peered at the screen. There was something mesmerising in this ghoulish spectacle – Chatwin’s passion for his subject, his enthusiasm and the fire in him despite his failing body. He spoke, in that strange, slightly querulous voice, of art, and Patagonia, of Aborigines going Walkabout, and nomadism, and the aesthetic imperative that leads to the mania for collecting, possessing that which cannot be possessed. “Of course, art always lets you down.”

Chatwin died soon after that interview. I didn’t know who he was at the time, and hadn’t read any of his books, but I have never forgotten it. In the writing of this piece, to try to confirm the accuracy of my own memory of the event, I searched for the interview online, and found a clip of it. I wondered whether to include it; people should remember him as he was when he was well, remember him for his writing, his beauty, his manic intelligence, his adventurous spirit and his extraordinary journeys. Not as a gaunt and haunted figure with so much still to say in the few remaining moments of lucidity left to him. His mind was going. But it was him, unquestionably, and still there, and still bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.

https://youtu.be/aN3tyNfVzjI

Though he was very weak and so thin you could see the white bones in his arms, his telephone was still plugged in to its socket. He was making and receiving calls, talking to his friends all over the world.

 Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey    


Assisi was all about Saint Francis, and in numerous shops small plasterwork figures of him stood in rows in cabinets, styled in various poses. One of seven children born to a prosperous cloth merchant, he had a fairly wild youth, and had gone off to war against Perugia in 1201, when he was taken prisoner and held in captivity for a year. On his return to Assisi a serious illness led to what has been described as a spiritual crisis, but the following year he joined another military expedition to Apulia. On the way a strange vision convinced him of the need to return to Assisi at once and devote his life to God. He took a vow of poverty and spent the next years living essentially as a beggar in the surrounding countryside, wandering.

Reading the account of the saint’s life, I was put in mind of another soldier called Francis who had experienced a revelatory vision, but one who couldn’t have been more different. Sir Francis Younghusband, imperial soldier, diplomat and explorer, pioneered a route into Tibet on an espionage mission, and became the British resident in Kashmir in 1906. He became increasingly absorbed in mystical religion after an experience in Lhasa which he described as “a curious sense of being literally in love with the world”. He published a number of New Age books on his return to Britain, and became a proponent of free love, “the freedom to unite when and how a man and woman please,” as he put it, and wrote to his friend and lover Lady Lees saying: “I have made the discovery that bodily union does not impair soul union but heightens and tightens it”.

The Basilica of St. Francis was perched on a hill at the far western edge of Assisi – a site that used to be known as the Hill of Hell, as criminals were put to death there by being flung off it. Now it is known as the Hill of Paradise. The basilica itself consists of two churches, one on top of the other. The Upper Church was Gothic, the interior decorated with frescoes thought to be by Giotto. Overhead a cross-vaulted ceiling was decorated with golden stars on a deep blue background, and induced a light and airy sensation of soaring aspirations. Below, the Lower Church was an enormous crypt, entirely in the Romanesque style. It was dark and lit with the flickering flames of long, tapering candles. The atmosphere was one of introspection, contemplation.

In a nave off to one side there was a small chapel to St. Mary Magdalen, and at a bench before the altar a priest was praying with his eyes shut – a man in his 50s, with tight-curled iron-grey hair – his hands clasped before him, lips moving silently. As I entered the nave soundlessly on my rubber-soled shoes he suddenly looked up, startled, and saw me. I wondered what psychic field I had brought into the church to interrupt him so. What was the state of my soul, to have this effect? It meant no harm. We held each other’s gaze, deeply and questioningly, wide-eyed as if seeing something in each other for the first time. Then, embarrassed at disturbing him, I dipped my head, placed my hand over my heart in apology in the Islamic manner – a gesture I have always found touchingly respectful, however automatically ingrained it may become – and retreated. He closed his eyes and resumed his prayer once more. Perhaps I could have gone and prayed next to him. But I didn’t have his faith, and felt no urge to – no Franciscan revelation impelling me to do so.

I’ve always been interested in accounts of life-changing revelations. As humans we walk along our familiar pathways too often with eyes half-shut, and have at times to make a deliberate effort of will to notice things. Travel can introduce a kind of artificial jolt to the system, where you are physically transported to a different environment which sends you into a kind of sensory overload, where everything is unfamiliar so you are forced to see with new eyes; not just physically transported but also spiritually. And yet you can’t induce the pliant and open state of mind that is necessary to achieve this artificially – merely travelling somewhere different is not enough; one has to endeavour to see differently too. A concert can do it, music transporting you, manifesting itself in great emotion – your hair stands on end, your eyes fill with tears and you feel unable to breathe, filled with love. It leaves you changed somehow. Art can do it – I remember standing before a Caravaggio and having that same sensation, of a great pressure building up within me, right in the centre of my forehead, and I felt deeply moved and filled with tenderness. It transports us in time and space and we are not the same afterwards; we have altered our gaze and induced a new perspective, become beautifully broken.

I read a review the other day of an art exhibition in Goa: Julian Opie’s landscape prints titled “Winter”. Reviewer Madhavi Gore described the artist using satellite imagery and Google mapping to convey the wintry French landscape, there in steamy, tropical Goa, and spoke of the tradition of landscape painting as being rooted in the desire to possess, to inhabit those landscapes, in a claim of ownership: “Opie’s installation reminds us of humankind’s constant and consistent need to plot and map our footprint or location, and acquire a position of perspective – visual, aural, existential.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.in/madhavi-gore/julian-opie-brings-a-fren_b_8366440.html

It made me think about that action of plotting and mapping. What was the one group of people who did this to a greater extent than anyone else? People who actually described their world as it occured, footstep by footstep, mapping its features and by doing so, bringing it into being, constructing their own creation mythology in the process? It was the Australian Aborigines. The Songlines.

In the early 1980s Bruce Chatwin travelled to Australia, inspired by a book he had read, Theodor Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia. Chatwin had been trying to write a book on nomads for years, but had got bogged down in the weight of research and had to abandon it. Now, Strehlow’s account of Aborigine traditions and mythology suddenly shone a new light on the subject. For Chatwin it was the missing piece in the jigsaw, or rather several missing pieces. He couldn’t quite see how it was going to fit together, but knew that this was an important area that was little understood, and felt “it might answer for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness”. The book he ended up writing, The Songlines, described how the Aborigines, despite belonging to many different tribal groups, dispersed across vast distances and with often no language in common, nevertheless had a similar series of creation myths or ‘songs’, which connected together. In their songs they had created not just a physical map of their immediate surroundings, but also a moral universe, and these formed a network that spread out across the continent of Australia:

Every song cycle went leap-frogging through language barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier. A Dreaming-track might start in the west, near Broome; thread its way through twenty languages or more; and go on to hit the sea near Adelaide.

“And yet,” I said, “It’s still the same song.”

“Our people,” Flynn said, “say they recognise a song by it’s ‘taste’ or ‘smell’… by which of course they mean the ‘tune’. The tune always stays the same, from the opening bars to the finale.”

“Words may change,” Arkady interrupted, “but the melody lingers on.”

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that a young man on Walkabout could sing his way across Australia provided he could hum the right tune?”

“In theory, yes,” Flynn agreed.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

“Walkabout.” As a term it is still little understood. Merriam-Webster traces it back to 1908, making reference to “a short period of wandering bush life engaged in by an Australian Aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work”. Wikipedia adds that “the only mention of ‘spiritual journey’ comes in a usage example from a latter-day travel writer” – that travel writer being none other than Bruce Chatwin. But The Songlines was published in 1987. Was it really possible that there had been no deeper understanding of the term in all that time?

A film called Walkabout [spoiler alert] was directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1971, which was the story of two white children – a teenage girl and her younger brother – who become lost in the Australian desert where they are rescued by an Aborigine boy. Together they travel through the Outback, in a landscape which author Louis Nowra described as being: “of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting.” But it’s also a film about the mysteries of communication and cultural incomprehension. The Aborigine boy, increasingly drawn to the girl, paints his body with white clay in ritual and performs a courtship dance outside the hut where she is. He dances all day, and then all night, but she ignores him. That is to say, she cannot bring herself to look; we get the clear impression she knows what is going on, but lacks the equivalent language to be able to process it and respond. In the morning the body of the Aborigine boy is hanging from a tree outside. Rejected, he has taken his own life. And, years later, in an apartment block overlooking Sydney harbour, the girl stands in the kitchen as her tired husband comes home from work, loosening his tie, complaining about his boss, and her eyes over his shoulder seek out the distant horizons of the Outback again, and a memory of her and her brother swimming in a billabong together with the Aborigine boy, laughing and naked:

For we never hold hands, nor kiss,

Nor were we ever more than children.

Ricardo Reis – Come sit by my side, Lydia


In a caravan somewhere near Cullen, Australia, trapped by a storm that had turned the roads to mud, Chatwin settled down to write. He describes having a presentiment that the travelling phase of his life might be passing – a tragically accurate prediction, as it turned out – and wanted to reopen his old moleskine notebooks before the malaise of settlement crept over him. Twenty years of travel, questions, quotations and encounters, with the theme of restlessness and nomadism running through it all. Pascal, he remembered, opined that all of man’s miseries stemmed from his inability to remain quietly in a room.

“Could it be,” Chatwin mused, “that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?” (O’Hanlon recalled Chatwin telling him a story about a female southern albatross that wandered into the wrong hemisphere and built a nest in Shetland, waiting for the mate who never came.) The notebooks ranged far and wide, both geographically and metaphysically. And then, reading The Songlines again, in the section where he is leafing through the notebooks, one entry leapt out at me off the page:

Amdand u khandand u sokhtand u kushtand u burdand u raftand

They came and they sapped and they burned and they slew and they trussed up their loot and were gone.

A survivor’s account of the sacking of Bokhara by the Mongol cavalry in the 12th century. The rhythm of the Persian words describes the thud of horse hooves over the plain.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

There it was. I had read The Songlines years earlier, and the line had embedded itself in my consciousness, the rhythm of it thrumming away until suddenly it surfaced again in the rumble of wheels over cobblestones in a small Italian hilltown, rather than hoofbeats across the great plains of Asia. The contempt of the nomadic Mongol horde for the settlers of Bokhara, undone by a sedentary life. A similar divide occurs amongst African tribes between the hunter-gatherers and the farmers, the cattle-herders who go in search of fresh pasture and the cultivators across whose lands they pass. Here, in these pages, was the book on nomadism he never wrote. And at the end of the book, in another eerie presentiment, which I find haunting and yet strangely beautiful at the same time, he describes being led to an ancestral site by his guide Limpy and coming across three Aboriginal men:

In a clearing there were three ‘hospital’ bedsteads, with mesh springs and no mattresses, and on them lay the three dying men. They were almost skeletons. Their beards and hair had gone. One was strong enough to lift an arm, another to say something. When they heard who Limpy was, all three smiled, spontanously, the same toothless grin.

Arkady folded his arms, and watched.

“Aren’t they wonderful?” Marian whispered, putting her hand in mine and giving it a squeeze.

Yes. They were all right. They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines


Bruce Chatwin died in Nice on the 18th January 1989. In the last months of his life he had astonished friends by converting to the Greek Orthodox faith, and his ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli, in the Greek Peloponnese. The chapel was near the home of his friend and mentor, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Chatwin had stayed for several months while working on The Songlines. “There was never, not a word about God,” said Leigh Fermor reflecting on their conversations. But the notebooks told another story. “The search for nomads is a search for God”, read one entry. Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time”. Writing of a journey to Stavronokita on Mount Athos, he wrote: “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea. Just below the monastery the dark cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam of the sea.” And finally, one last entry: “There must be a god.”

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